The Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra, the likes of which there aren’t anywhere else on earth, concludes its first season Monday night at The Music Center Pavilion.
The historic experiment—a resident collection of superior musicians playing new (neo) compositions written by men who wrestle with contemporary sounds (phonic)—as already proved, plus or minus, many theories:
1—Indeed there are audiences for this musical child of a mixed marriage, between so-called classical music (the formal father) and so-called jazz (the emotional mother). The Pavilion has been close to brimming, averaging nearly 90%, capacity for the first three flights of the Neophonic. Considering that the orchestra was booked for thin Monday on each outing, allowing that there was no Neophonic habit and remembering that big-band jazz in Los Angeles has enjoyed only a half-life lately, the box office tempo is up.
Underlining counting-house success was the second session which had to compete with a major jazz concert just down the road-apiece. For booking reasons best known to himself, Norman Granz scheduled Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Tony Bennett in the Shrine Auditorium against Stan Kenton, the Neophonic and Dizzy Gillespie in The Music Center. Instead of blowing the two houses down, competition somehow resulted in crowds at both halls.
Open Ears, Open Mind
This audience is open-eared and minded: they cheer when most challenged musically. They are well-dressed and well-shaved. They sometimes applaud between movements, which is either bad manners or unrestrained appreciation, depending upon whether you grew up on the bride’s side or the bridegroom’s side.
2—To do one polished concert, you need more than two rehearsals.
With all its native talent—including Bud Shank, Conte Candoli, Buddy Collette, Shelly Manne—the Neophonic has sometimes played rough with the music (so ragged during one coda in the second concert that conductor Kenton later apologized to the audience). The 26 men play magnificently and they read music fluently, but because of inadequate rehearsal time, not always together.
The acoustics. the intentions, the musicians are so good they deserve better than two to get ready.
3—A resident orchestra sometimes changes residents.
Because of the confusing conflicts of Interest—record dates, films, TV, tours—the orchestra personnel has not been as stable as the sponsoring International Academy of Contemporary Music (try writing a singing commercial for that title) might have hoped. Between the debut concert and the third concert, the pianists have changed, three of the four trombonists are different, a switch on tuba, another on guitar, one substitution each among the ‘trumpets and saxophones. Only the French horn section, the non-solo seats, has remained intact.
Probably, a new musical organization with a short season must play musical chairs. But next year’s Neophonic ought to do a more permanent recruiting job; keeping the same residents housed in The Music Center.
Among the regulars, by my ears, Shank has been the most consistently exciting soloist in an orchestra that rides handsomely along the polyrhythms of Manne.
4—Not all new music sounds new, even at a world premiere.
In the late 1940s, leader Stan Kenton attached his name to a Capitol album called “Innovations.” So they were, at the time. The first Neophonic concert, with new compositions by several excellent writers, too often sounded like an echo of “Innovations.”
That is not to say bad, by any means. This same music, almost 20 years later, is complex, exciting and still relatively unknown. In truth, one reviewer thought the most adventurous piece during the opening evening was “Conflict” by Pete Rugulo [sic]. “Conflict,” it happens, was the one composition that came directly out of the “Innovations” album.
Prejudices: the music by Lalo Schifrin, Marty Paich and Johnny Richards provided the most electricity in the debut concert, with Schifrin’s fugue, “The Sphinx,” both giving the most, by its most of jazz feeling within a formal structure, and demanding the most, by its complex harmonics.
During the second concert (including music by Allyn Ferguson, Gerald Wilson, George Shearing, Julian Lee), one of Neophonic’s built-in problems became apparent. Sometimes, when the music was most melodic it didn’t swing. Sometimes: when it swung. it didn’t sound modern. Sometimes, when it was modern, it neither swung nor had melody. In a full program, all these conditions are tolerable, even occasionally desirable, but too often the individual compositions had all conditions going for and against them within a single piece.
This movement within movements. from a repeated riff sound of 1930 jazz to the syrup of movie music to the formalism of the Classics, became even more noticeable in the third concert. The noble, I think necessary, effort to build suspension bridges between all musical expression sometimes falls in midstream.
Yet at least once in each evening, the spanning worked, hung out there shining so brightly the audience could hear, feel, see and taste the real progressions possible. In the third concert, it was Shorty Rogers’ “The Invisible Orchard” that had discipline, jazz and beauty all raveled in one composition. It was written as a ballet to boot and I’d like to see it danced the next time.
5—A guest artist is not always welcome.
Friedrich Gulda, an Austrian who plays Beethoven piano and writes for jazz musicians, premiered a concerto at the opening concert. Technically, he was brilliant at his instrument; emotionally, his composition was neither very engaging nor very daring.
Pedaled Commercial Route
Gillespie was far more satisfying as the second guest, playing music by Gil Fuller and pointing his peculiar diagonal-bell trumpet closer to jazz. Dizzy has a unique phonic genius all his own; it works handsomely in a concert ball surrounded by 26 musicians in tuxedos: Probably the only formality missing was in his manner; Gillespie might have saved his mugging for after the performance, not before he blew a note. He Is a genuinely funny man but his timing can be off, allowing him to forget to prove that he is a musician first.
Jimmy Smith, organist, was a dubious choice as one of two guests. for the third concert. His material was wrong, from “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” to “Walk on the Wild Side” Smith pedaled a commercial route. His approach, which is part pop, part gospel, part movie-house intermission music, bas little to do with the Neophonic defilations.
Buddy De Franco, clarinetist, was the anchor guest at concert number three. He did well by Nelson Riddle’s “Il Saltimbocca.”
For the upcoming finale, Mel Torme, augmented by strings and a choir, will do his “California Suite.” Torme is an accomplished musician: whether he fits on the Neophonic platform is a question that awaits Monday.
It Is already clear to me that not all guests were chosen for their far-sighted contributions to American music. Maybe commercial compromise is the way to whet enough appetites to establish a Neophonic orchestra for future season. I doubt it. If you have to dilute the contents during the first year, you may one day let the whole purpose evaporate and Neophonic could turn into an empty coinage covering every box office act from Peter, Paul and Mary to Tom, Dick and Harry Belafonte.
6—Stan Kenton has the stature to conduct such an orchestra. Having plumped for it, written for it, fronted for it, he wind’s up the season with his dignity remarkably intact.
Scarecrow-tall, angular. without baton, Kenton leads the Neophonic by planting his legs and shooting his arms as if they were fireworks from the last Fourth of July.
His brief speeches and introductions of the composers have been lucidly delivered.
His ‘“Opus for Timpani,” done in the debut concert, was loud and good. His arrangements of Wagnerian themes for the second concert were an Interesting exercise in updating, possibly too faithful to be fine.
It has been easy for some jazz hot-spurs to dismiss Kenton as a history of brass wails in the wilderness. It has been easy because he has been going off in a Neophonic direction now for a quarter century.
It has also been unfair. Because, alone with Duke Ellington, Kenton has explored adventurous music for large orchestra when other leaders tossed in their mutes or took two steps back to safer territory.
The theme, then, with all the ifs and buts and howevers as overtones attached to this first year, is that Neophonic gives this place something worthy, something good to grow on.
This is music you can analyze: with your mind. It can also be measured by your foot—whether while listening with your bead, your foot moves in time. Mine moves.